Working for Migrant Rights
By Greg Moses
Christian is a migrant worker who stands in the sun by day and sleeps in a tent by night. Unlike other migrant workers, however, Christian’s job is to protest for migrant rights. During the day he protests outdoors.
“I stand outside the National Assembly all day and my brain is cooked, it’s really torture,” says Christian speaking by telephone from his union office. “The temperature is 35 degrees (95 Fahrenheit), and there is no shelter, none at all. My signs there protest the troop dispatch to Iraq and call for the resignation of the president who used to be a human rights lawyer, now he acts a little bit different.”
After dark, Christian goes to his office at the Equality Trade Union (ETU) Migrants Branch, and works the internet, posting struggle reports and digital pictures. As far as Christian knows, there is not another “national” union of migrant workers anywhere else in the world, which would make him a unique international secretary.
There are groups that agitate for migrant rights. But Christian says those groups are usually backed by NGOs or churches. Migrant unions are quite rare. And among migrant unions, he knows of none other that is a national union for all kinds of labor.
Although Christian is a German citizen, he has worked full time in Korea for the past 15 months. His union, the ETU Migrants Branch, is part of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the younger of the two trade union federations in Korea.
Lately, the financial press in Asia and elsewhere has been paying attention to Korean strikes, because the Korean labor calendar calls for annual contracts, and annual contracts call for annual strikes. Christian’s union, too, is leading a strike this year.
Strikers of the Myeong-dong Sit-in Struggle Collective (MSSC) recently celebrated day 250. They live in three large tents that have been pitched in the heart of Seoul at Myeong-dong, the Korean equivalent of Times Square. Eight months ago, there were 80 strikers. Today the number stands at 30 to 40, “so there is ample room in the tents,” says Christian. “The tents are our temporary homes. We live there except when we go out for demonstrations or organizing people.”
Although some labor reforms for migrant workers have been enacted by the Korean National Assembly, Christian’s union is not satisfied with the progress: “We want legislation that will give us labor rights, work visas, and the right to choose our work place. Also we want all migrant workers released from detention centers. They recently arrested 2,000.” These are the issues he works for.
“To be realistic,” says Christian, “in the situation we are in now, we will not get what we want. The activists are not many. Migrant workers in Korea once numbered about 130,000, then there was a crackdown and about 10,000 left, but the number is back up to 160,000. The crackdown completely failed. The government thought they could treat people with a massive crackdown and they would leave the country, but they didn’t. They are only in hiding, waiting for better times.”
Migrant workers in Korea come from all over. “Many come from China. Also Vietnam, Mongolia, Philippines, Bangladesh (Pakistan), Nigeria, Ghana,” and of course, Germany. They work in small factories, construction sites, and other “3-D” jobs that are dirty, dangerous, and difficult. And they work six days a week, Monday through Saturday.
Korean workers as a whole only recently won the right to a five-day work week. That is one reason why this season’s strikes have been more numerous. The subway strike is partly about the number of new people that have to be hired so that all workers can have two days off. Auto workers also are striking for higher pay because they’d like to work less overtime.
As Christian sees it, Korean unionists are still fighting to catch up with the rights and freedoms that belong to workers in other places, such as Germany. “The ruling class can use pictures to make us look very militant. But the workers are striking for very ordinary things. Like the 40 hour work week. Europeans already have that and productivity of Korean workers is the same as Europeans. Here they have the right to fight for that.”
When workers have to work more than 40 hours per week, they miss out on life, children, spouses, and friends. A report about Asian and Pacific Islanders (API) in California could have been written about Korean migrant workers, too:
“Due to mandatory work hours or the need to work many jobs to survive, many API workers work extremely long hours,” reads a report from the AFL-CIO Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance and UCLA Labor Center. “This translates to less time with family and for supervising children. Studies have shown that poverty and lack of parental supervision lead to domestic violence, poor school performance, increased likelihood of children joining gangs, and therefore limitations on their future prospects. Low-wage workers live from check to check, and often need to change jobs, further adding to family instability. Yet, they are often trapped in low wage work because they do not have time to learn English or other work skills. Many workers need to rely on public funding for health, welfare, and retirement.”
In California, migrant workers face discrimination. “It’s the same in Korea,” says Christian, “especially when workers are new in the country. But now many speak Korean very well, they know Korean culture, and when they are organized in the union, even they went on strike for better work conditions.”
Christian explains that a recent strike by subway workers, “was just settled for 3 percent. Not much. I remember pilots in Germany striking for 30 percent and getting 25. Here the people are really fighting. They make a big thing of it, but it’s not really a big thing. A general strike, for instance, will include 2,000 to 3,000 people.”
Just before leaving Germany, Christian began working in homeless shelters. He see that in Germany there is more help for the homeless. “Here the social system is very under-developed. Here the poor really completely have nothing, nothing.” If the state services for homeless people differ from place to place, Christian says the reasons for homelessness remain the same. Older, cheaper housing is gradually replaced with newer and more expensive. Says Christian, “in Korea we are in solidarity with people who want to protect their homes.”
“Other reasons to get homeless are the same in Korea and Germany, especially for middle aged men,” he says. “It’s a civilization problem. When they destroy homes, people want to be compensated or given a new flat, which means that they are fighting, even with Molotov cocktails.”
I wonder how many Chinese workers in Korea fled impending homelessness? As new business moves into China, old workers move out. “Yes, businesses are moving to China,” says Christian. “But those are the large ones with big factories. The small businesses cannot move to China. Still, they need cheap labor, so the Chinese workers come here. They come from the countryside, mainly from the Northeast and the former industrial zones, where the government used to run big factories. But day by day those factories are closing. The majority of our migrant workers come from those inner migrations in China.”
Organizing Chinese workers is not easy. “The Chinese are very interested (of course we too). I have delivered leaflets to them in Chinese, but because the trade union in China is a part of government (state run, no independent trade unions exist there) if you really organize there you find yourself very fast in prison.”
In Korea, as everywhere, unionists keep one eye on the police. As the tent strike was being organized, Christian still kept a place to live at the outskirts of Seoul. But he gave up his dwelling place on the advice of fellow unionists who warned him that if he traveled such a distance from home to work every day, as a striking unionist, he would probably be intercepted by police.
It is now past midnight Korea time. I tell Christian that I hope he gets some sleep. “I should make rest for several days, but it is impossible,” he replies. “Then when I run out of work, there is no place to fall asleep.”